Does James Purnell have any policies?

His Newsnight interview revealed an emperor with no clothes on

How many of you saw James Purnell's cringe-inducing performance on Newsnight on Monday night? He spent the first few minutes of the live interview repeatedly rebuking Kirsty Wark for focusing her questions on his resignation from the Cabinet and not on issues of substance. But when Wark finally got round to asking him which specific policies he would advocate Labour adopting to avoid "annihilation" (her word, not mine) at the next election, this was his answer:

"I think what we need to do is to renew ourselves and I think that goes through idealism. I think it goes through going back to our basic principles and articulating them for today."

Sorry, what on earth does that mean? And why does this man think he can launch a philosophical debate about the future of the left on the basis of such vague and dubious generalisations? In fact, this statement from Purnell is so meaningless, so pointless, so hollow and empty, that I would argue a whole host of figures on the left - from Gordon Brown to Tony Benn to Hugo Chavez - and perhaps even a few on the right, could easily sign up to it. So what purpose does it serve?

Where, I wondered, as I watched the interview, were his policies? What did he think should be done about Trident? Or ID cards? Spending cuts? Perhaps I nodded off on my couch, but I don't remember hearing Purnell outline a single policy or proposal that he believed would help Labour avoid the electoral defeat next year that Wark referred to in her original question.

Should I be surprised? He may be clever but James Purnell is, by no stretch of the imagination, a public intellectual, or Labour's 21st century Antony Crosland - no matter what his supporters in the press might claim. I'm not normally someone who agrees with Rod Liddle, but I couldn't help but nod furiously as I read the former Today Programme editor's description of the former Work and Pensions Secretary in a recent Speccie piece:

"He is a public school-educated monkey whose career, prior to him becoming a useless MP, comprised various vapid and pointless media consultancy positions, culminating in him being appointed to the job of lickspittle to the BBC's worst-ever director-general, John Birt, in the BBC's most useless and counter-productive and overpaid department, corporate affairs. Later, as an MP, he was the most avid supporter of Lord Hutton's whitewashed inquiry into the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly, and the most vociferous critic of his previous employers, the BBC."

To be fair to Purnell, the problem is not him. The problem is that it is now fashionable for ambitious young politicians on the left and centre-left to engage in pompous, pretentious, highfalutin rhetoric about choice, diversity, opportunity, equality and other high-minded principles at the expense of proper discussions about practical policies.

The latest buzzword is "capability", as in Amartya Sen's "equality of capabilities" - cited by, among others, Purnell in the Newsnight interview, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and numerous other New Labour figures. It sounds fantastically deep and noble - and comes with a Nobel Laureate attached to it! - but as the Fabians' Sunder Katwala points out, what happened to old-fashioned equality-related issues like income and wealth? No longer fashionable? Out of date?

I, for one, want to know where the Labour's various self-appointed leaders, thinkers, intellectuals, etc, be they Purnell, Miliband, Balls, Cruddas, whoever, stand on specific issues like the 50p top rate of tax, bankers' bonuses, the war in Afghanistan and a whole range of other pressing, everyday issues. Hiding behind vague and vacuous clichés and catchphrases will not do.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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